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What every D.C. voter needs to know: questions for the candidates

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By Colbert I. King
Saturday, June 5, 2010

Observing the D.C. Council and the mayor work on the budget is like watching kids play in traffic: You know sooner or later someone's going to get hurt. When D.C. politicians cavort, however, the city takes the hit. We saw that last week when the council and mayor raided the city's savings account to avoid making tough decisions on spending and taxes.

They count on our not knowing what they're up to. On the campaign trail, they're "slippin' and a slidin', peepin' and a hidin' " (see Little Richard, 1956) hoping to blind us with their fancy footwork. It's time to tell them -- and those who would replace them -- that we "won't be your fool no more." If you plan to attend a candidates forum -- and you should -- and don't want to just listen to happy talk, here are some questions you can consider asking Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), council chairman Vincent Gray (D), at-large members Phil Mendelson (D), David Catania (I) and Kwame Brown (D), and ward members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and all candidates in the 2010 elections before you give them your precious vote.

-- The city has cap on borrowing of 12 percent of the operating budget. The more money borrowed, the more the city has to pay in interest and principal. Do you think a 12 percent cap is too restrictive? If so, what programs would you cut or eliminate to make additional payments?

-- What projects now being planned can be delayed or eliminated to make more money available to fund critical programs?

-- The city cannot tax commuters or federal and nonprofit real estate, and it has restrictions on building height, which limits the value of real estate and the taxes that can be collected. What new sources of revenue should be considered to make up for these limitations?

-- The fund balance is the city's savings account for dealing with hard times. There is almost nothing left in that account. What are you doing (incumbents) -- or will you do (challengers) -- to rebuild the fund balance so the city has a comfortable margin for dealing with serious fiscal problems?

-- The chief financial officer has said that the city's AAA bond rating is critical to the District's ability to balance its budget and meet its need to build and repair schools, roads, bridges, recreation centers and other public facilities. How important to you is our reputation on Wall Street? Why?

-- There are two ways to meet the city's financial needs: increase revenue and cut spending. Are you willing to raise taxes? If yes, which ones and by how much?

-- Do you think spending can be reduced? If yes, which specific programs and by how much? Incumbents: What committee do you chair and what departments do you oversee? What steps have you taken to make certain that they do not overspend their budgets? How often have you held oversight hearings? How often do you meet with department heads? Challengers: What work have you done to become familiar with the details of the city's financial situation?

-- Mayoral candidates. Mr. Fenty: What steps have you taken to reduce costs and what steps will you take to reduce costs? The last time you ran, you pledged not to raise taxes, but you have increased many fees that are also a hardship for many. Are you making the same promise for the next four years? Do you believe that you can continue to cut to meet expenses? Mr. Gray: If more cuts can be made, why didn't you make them when the council reviewed the mayor's budget?

-- All candidates: At what point will cuts seriously impact city services? Are you promising not to raise taxes for the next four years? If yes, what cuts will you make to keep the budget balanced?

-- Several local jurisdictions have furloughed employees to balance their budgets. Should D.C. employees be furloughed or take pay cuts? If yes, which departments, how much and when? If no, why not? Do you think furloughs will reduce the quality of the city's services?

-- There has been talk about the financial control board coming back. What specific events would bring back the control board? What are you doing or what will you do to prevent that from happening?

Fellow citizens, this time, don't let them dance.

kingc@washpost.com


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